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Acclaimed author closes Babel season

Q&A with George Saunders

Author George Saunders

Photo by Chloe Aftel


George Saunders, referred to by critics as “a beloved cult author” and “short story master,” was awarded the Man Booker prize in 2017 for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, based on the true story of a brokenhearted Lincoln holding the dead body of his young son Willie on a return trip to the cemetery crypt.  [The bardo, in Tibetan tradition, is a transitional state between life and death.]  Saunders, now on the faculty of  Syracuse University, is the last author to appear in this season’s Babel lecture series sponsored by Just Buffalo Literary Center at Kleinhans Music Hall (1 Symphony Circle) on Thursday, April 18. For more info, visit justbuffalo.org.


Tell us about this book, praised for its deep humanity, yet imbued with the supernatural.   

It all started with this story I heard about Lincoln returning alone to the cemetery after his boy died. It was February 1862, the Civil War raging. For the longest time I was trying not to write this book. There were a lot of tones I had not done before; this writing didn’t allow my usual default of satire. It required more earnestness; it was riskier for me.


What have you learned from writing that you try to convey to your students at SU?

You are not your first draft. The important work happens in revision, in micromanaging every sentence. The stamp of “you-ness” should be on your work.


You’ve had a variety of occupations before becoming a writer. Destiny?

All the symptoms [of wanting to write] were there, but I didn’t know any writers. Didn’t know you could do that for a living. Then I read about the creative writing master’s program at Syracuse, applied, and got in. Met my wife there. Now we’ve been married thirty years and I am the father of two wonderful daughters.


What, if anything, do you hope readers will take away from your work?

I really want you to like the book and like me because I wrote it! I want you to really be thrilled. I like to think of a book as me saying to you, “Isn’t life crazy? Isn’t life beautiful?”


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